All Abuzz Over Feral Bees

Feb 13, 2014

All of Los Angeles seems abuzz about a new bee ordinance.

Associated Press reporter Gillian Flaccus wrote that a man illegally keeping bees on the roof of his West Los Angeles home may not have to worry any more since the City Council voted Wednesday, Feb. 12 to allow backyard beekeepers to keep bees.

That's good news for our urban beekeepers.

What troubles some folks, though--and rightfully so--is that the council agreed that when at all possible, feral bee colonies should be hived instead of destroyed.

Los Angeles has been the home of Africanized bees since the mid-1990s and some of those feral cololnies are indeed Africanized. They look the same, but their behavior isn't. Africanized honey bees, which the media has dubbed "killer bees," are much more aggressive than our European honey bees, established here in California in1853.

Flaccus quoted Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen as saying "“To just haul them (feral bees) out of the fences and stick them in the backyard, that's not a good idea." (See news story.)

Flaccus also quoted beekeeper Ruth Askren, who relocates feral hives to backyards all over the city,  as estimating that only  10 percent or fewer of the colonies she collects are so aggressive they must be destroyed.

"Currently, most hives discovered in the city's public right of ways or reported by concerned citizens," Flaccus wrote, "are wiped out because of worries about their aggressive genetics."

Mussen, who just received a grant with UC Davis bee scientist Brian Johnson to research Africanized bees in California, is following the story closely. He pointed out that Africanized bees were first detected in California in 1994, just outside Blyte in Riverside County. 

Fact is, not all bees (especially highly aggressive Africanized bees) are worth saving. 

Mussen wrote in one of his Bee Briefs, posted on his website: "While it does appear that over the decades the Africanized honey bees in southern California have lost some of their overly defensive behavior, they still are not predictable. At times a colony population is no more apt to become disturbed and defensive than our normally kept EHBs (European honey bees). At other times they respond quickly to minimal disturbance and defend a very large territory around the hive location. Such behavior is not restricted solely to AHB (Africanized Honey Bees), however colonies of EHBs demonstrating such intensive defensive behavior usually are 'requeened' or killed by beekeepers. Requeening is a process by which the original queen in the colony is located and removed.

"Then, a young queen, mated outside the range of AHB drones, is introduced into the colony. Over a period of four to six weeks, the original workers die of old age and are replaced by daughters of the new queen. Defensive behavior becomes less intense as population replacement rogresses. Individuals and organizations in southern California are advocating collecting honey bee swarms and extracting colonies from buildings, etc., hiving them, and keeping them in backyards. The probability of hiving an AHB colony is relatively high."

Meanwhile, Mussen is fielding calls from news media, beekeepers and agencies.

One person wanted to know if Mussen's views are science-based. "No," Mussen said, "it's common sense."

Mussen offers two suggestions:

1. Beekeepers needing bees should order packages from an area outside AHB colonization, such as Northern California. Be careful about ordering from queen bee breeders in Texas, "as the state is covered with Africanized honey bees."

2. If feral bees are collected and hived, move the hive to a location where there will not be interactions with people and domestic animals.  Allow the bees to fill the box and then conduct an inspection.  It will take only a couple minutes to determine if the bees simply mind their own business or would likely cause problems for adjacent  neighbors.

Mussen also warns that the new ordinance will be yanked if problems mount. If neighbors start complaining about  swarms, or bees stinging people and pets en masse, or about scores of bees seeking water elsewhere (beekeepers need to provide  for their colonies), that could happen.

Then, he says, beekeepers will have no one to blame but themselves.